Wednesday, 27 September 2017

R v Lavinia Woodward

Addendum 28th September + Addendum 29th September

TOFF JUSTICE is how The Sun newspaper described the sentencing of Lavinia Woodward who, in December 2016, had used a bread knife to wound her boyfriend- The Sun 26th September.  The report is riddled with comments implying that the Judge - His Honour Judge Pringle QC - was far too lenient on Miss Woodward.  She was "spared jail" and she "tearfully mouthed “thank you” to Judge Ian Pringle as he let her off with a suspended sentence - then walked out of court with a huge smile."  The Sun points out that - " ...  the judge’s leniency infuriated justice campaigners, who said offenders from less privileged backgrounds were regularly locked up for similar attacks."  The newspaper also offers three examples of women who had committed similar offences but they are "not posh" and so were jailed.  Those included the case of Angela Stead - 2 years for slicing her victim's artery causing severe blood loss.

Once charged with the offence,
Miss Woodward was on bail and it appears that the bail included a condition not to contact the victim.  In April, Miss Woodward pleaded guilty to the offence of unlawful wounding contrary to the Offences against the Person Act 1861 section 20 - an old Act which appears daily in all criminal courts in England and Wales.  The judge then ordered a per sentence report and also a psychiatric report.

On 12th May, the judge decided to defer sentence until 25th September to allow Miss Woodward to continue with counselling and also to demonstrate over a longer period of time that she was rid of alcohol and class A drugs.  The power to defer passing sentence is in section 1 of the Powers of Criminal Court (Sentencing) Act 2000 and a deferment may be for a period up to 6 months.  Deferred Sentencing is relatively rare but it enables the court to take into account conduct after conviction or other changes in the offender's circumstances.  Interestingly, in May, the Oxford Mail welcomed the deferment of the sentence and said that the judge showed "compassion and breadth of vision" - Oxford Mail 17th May

When she returned to court on 25th September for sentencing, the judge had before him an updated psychiatric report, reports from two further doctors and a number of character references.

Sentencing Remarks were published by the Judiciary on 26th September and contain a description of the events and indicate the RELATIVELY minor injuries inflicted.  The word RELATIVELY is important here because the case has to be seen in the context of unlawful wounding offences generally.

After setting out details of the offence, the judge turned to Sentencing Guidelines. Such guidelines exist for most common offences and sentencers must follow them unless to do so would be contrary to the interests of justice - Coroners and Justice Act 2009 section 125.  The Sentencing Council issues the guidelines - see Assault: Definitive Guideline 2011

The Judge concluded that the offence was one of lesser harm but of higher culpability and, as such, fell into Category 2 which has a sentencing starting point of 18 months imprisonment and a range from 1 year to 3 years.  Beginning with the 18 months starting point, the sentencer then considers factors which raise or lower the seriousness of the offence.

A factor increasing seriousness was that the offence was committed when under the influence of drink and drugs.

Factors reducing seriousness in Woodward's case were the absence of previous convictions, remorse and what is described by the judge as an immaturity not commensurate with her age.  Reports before the judge showed that she suffered from an emotionally unstable personality disorder, a severe eating disorder and alcohol and drug dependence.  Over a 9 month period she had demonstrated a determination to be rid of alcohol and drug addiction and had undertaken extensive counselling.

At this point it appears that the judge must have decided that before considering the guilty plea a sentence of 15 months was appropriate.  The early guilty plea enabled a discount of one-third to be applied and so we come to 10 months.

The next question was whether or not to suspend the sentence.  Sentences of not more than 2 years may be suspended - Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 s.118.  There is no specific statement about when a sentence should be suspended but there is Guidance issued by the Sentencing Council.  This indicates that a sentence if imprisonment should be suspended where there is a real prospect of rehabilitation and / or strong personal mitigation.

When suspending a sentence, the judge may impose requirements to be served in the community and these could include treatment for alcohol or drug addiction.  We do not know whether any conditions were imposed here.

Just a couple of other points.

1.  The offence was not committed when on bail but it appears that Miss Woodward breached her bail conditions when she contacted the victim in order to admit her guilt and to express sorrow.  Breaching bail is NOT a criminal offence but it enables the individual to be arrested and the courts then decide either to remand the person in custody or to continue the bail on the same of different terms.  A failure to surrender to bail is an offence - Bail Act 1976 section 6.

2.  The court is required to consider compensation for the victim.  Whether this was considered is not referred to in the sentencing remarks.  The Sun report indicates that Miss Woodward was "slapped with" a restraining order in May but details of this are not available.

It is never easy to comment about sentencing of criminal cases and no two cases are identical.  The approach of Judge Pringle to this case seems to be supportable in all the known circumstances.  Whether she can complete her degree studies at Oxford is a matter for that University to decide.  Also, she would have to disclose this conviction should she ever apply for registration as a medical practitioner.

The publication of sentencing remarks is to be welcomed as a counter to the irresponsible reporting of many cases.  Even with the availability of sentencing remarks, the FULL picture is not always available in the detail that it is to sentencers.

Endpiece:

For a contrary view of the case see The Guardian 27th September where Afua Hirsch comments - "Judges are quite capable of seeing offenders as human beings, capable of redemption, deserving of help, support and second chances. If they are wealthy, white, and have an Oxford degree, that is."

Addendum 28th September:

An interesting view is put by Shona Minson of the Oxford University Faculty of Law - "We're discussing Lavinia Woodward sentence for the wrong reasons."   According to this article - "Ms Woodward’s privilege bought her access to a senior barrister, rehabilitation programmes and medical experts."  The author notes that Miss Woodward was represented by a QC (privately paid for).  The  judge obtained a pre-sentence report and also additional reports were produced.  The article is correct in stating that Deferred Sentences are not commonplace. 

Pre-sentence reports -

If imprisonment was being considered, a basic requirement to obtain pre-sentence reports was included in the Criminal Justice Act 1991 - section 3:

(1) Subject to subsection (2) below, a court shall obtain and consider a pre-sentence report before forming any such opinion as is mentioned in subsection (2) of section 1 or 2 above.

(2) Where the offence or any other offence associated with it is triable only on indictment, subsection (1) above does not apply if, in the circumstances of the case, the court is of the opinion that it is unnecessary to obtain a pre-sentence report.  [My emphasis].

Clearly the 1991 legislation was very strong on Pre-Sentence Reports and they were almost invariably very useful.

A change came with the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act section 81 but this was repealed by the Criminal Justice Act 2003.  Today, pre-sentence reports are governed by section 156 of the CJA 2003.   In essence, a PSR need not be obtained if,  in the circumstances of the case, the court is of the opinion that it is unnecessary to obtain a pre-sentence report.

Given that Miss Woodward was a first offender who clearly had addiction problems, it would be very difficult to defend not requesting a PSR.

For the Michaela Booth case referred to in the Oxford article - see THIS.  "Nobody expected me to go to prison on the day that I was sentenced, with no pre-sentence report and no regard or questioning as to what measures I had in place to care for my child, which at the point I was sent to prison, were none. Five minutes before sentencing me to two years in prison, was when the judge found out I was a mother ...."

Addendum 29th September:

It is reported - BBC News 28th September - that the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office has received a complaint relating to the conduct of His Honour Judge Pringle.  Details of the complaint are not available. The Office may not investigate matters such as whether a sentence that was imposed is appropriate.

... and, according to THIS REPORT the matter will not proceed because the complaint(s) did not relate to personal conduct.


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